Anthropologist • USA
“To solve the problem of global warming, Yupik Eskimos maintain that we need to change our fellow humans”
Ann Fienup-Riordan is a cultural anthropologist known for her work with the Yupik Eskimo of southwestern Alaska. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska and was named “Historian of the Year” by the Alaskan Historical Society in 1991 and 2001 for her writings on hunting traditions on Nelson Island located in southwestern Alaska. The Alaska Federation of Natives awarded her the Denali Prize for her contribution as a non-native in 2000.
In 1973, I was sent to southwest Alaska to help with a community development project, and I’ve been working there with Yupik people ever since. In the early years my research sprang from my own interests, but our work has become more truly collaborative as we’ve come to know each other better. In a region economically poor but culturally rich, people continue to speak their language, harvest from the land and sea, and practise many ancestral traditions. As they enter the 21st century, elders especially support the documentation and sharing of traditional knowledge, which they view as possessing continued value in the world today. Like indigenous people throughout the Arctic, Yupik people today speak with concern of changes they have observed over their lifetime. The most noteworthy signs of warming temperatures are changes in sea and river ice. What many elders comment on is the later freeze-up in autumn and the earlier break-up in spring; thinner, less reliable river ice, the disappearance of cikullaq, newly-frozen ice that in the past formed along open water in cold weather, fewer evunret (piled icebergs) as well as appearing in places where they were not previously seen. Speaking with elders, I am moved not only by what they say but by the way they say it. The most striking feature of our conversations is the integrated way in which information is shared. Elders do not distinguish between human impacts on the environment, including the effects of commercial fishing or over-hunting, and the ‘natural’ effects of climate change. Instead, they continually refer to the role played by human action in the world when describing changes in the environment or species availability. Elders often repeat the well-known Yupik adage, ‘The world is changing following its people.’ This adage captures the Yupik view that environmental change is directly related not just to human action – over-fishing, burning fossil fuels – but to human interaction. To solve the problems of global warming, elders maintain that we need to do more than change our actions – reduce by-catch and carbon emissions. We need to correct our fellow humans. They encourage young people to pay attention to traditional rules for living, believing that if their values improve, correct actions will follow.